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The Secret Power of Music

simon gray 2020-01-24, 13:34:40
Read this article aloud — 3997 words

This article was originally written for the Musical Philosophies module of the Master of Arts in Ethnomusicology which I did in 1996; I've often had cause to refer to it since then so I've reproduced it here on my main site to make it easier to. It is presented as a description of philosophies held be other people and groups and not necessarily a personal view.

"All music, based upon melody & rhythm, is the earthly representative of heavenly music" - Plotinus (AD 205 - 269)

"Hear, & your soul shall live" - Isiah 55:3


Music as an organisation of sound is known to have existed for over 3000 years, & writings from the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, India & China suggest there was such an artform at least 1000 years previous to this. In our so - called 'scientific age' it is often easy to forget this; & music as it was taught in English schools until very recently even served to implicate a denial of this fact, by its labelling of our mediaeval music as 'primitive', its concentration on the theory of music apparent in the 'common practice' period, & by completely failing to mention the existence of methods of making music outside of the traditional Western art music mould.

Along with the increase in interest in the study of the theory & practise of other musical cultures on an equal footing to our own, there has been an upsurge of interest in what some people like to describe as the spiritual side of music - a side of musical philosophy that has had an important (almost to the point of becoming religious in nature) influence on every musical culture on the planet at some point during their histories, even our own. Contemporary theorists, composers, & performers such as David Tame, Joscelyn Godwin, Terry Riley, Peter Michel Hamel, Joachim-Ernst Berendt, & Dane Rudhyar have all made studies in this area & published their findings & opinions. Even medical science has come to formulate the opinion that music has some kind of power beyond mere soothing & relaxation with the science of Music Therapy - in 1984 David Tame (Tame 1984: p 157) noted that music therapy was not in wide use save for a few private practitioners, yet 16 years on in 1996 respected colleges such as the Roehampton Institute, & the Guildhall School of Music have courses in the subject, & local education & health authorities in places such as Birmingham employ peripatetic music therapists to visit patients in hospitals & special schools. New technology has been developed in order to assist practitioners, devices such as the EMS Soundbeam (a modern day development of the Theramin) & its associated peripherals enable the physically disadvantaged to benefit from sharing in the music making experience, & some hospitals have specially designed 'sense rooms', containing a myriad of coloured lights & fascinating sounds, in which even profoundly blind & deaf children experience the wonder & magic of the environment around them.


The further back in time we go, the greater emphasis was placed on the concept of music, & even sound in general, as inextricably connected to spirituality, & even the act of Creation itself. Just as Rennaissance philosophers such as Robert Fludd (1574 - 1637) had their ideas of Microcosm & Macrocosm (ideas which in themselves were strongly influenced by the views of Pythagoras (6th C. BCE) & Boethius (480 - 525)), with the microcosm as the physical world here on Earth (the Temporal Universe) being a reflection of the macrocosm of Heaven, or the Spiritual Universe, so the Ancients believed that audible sound (& thus music) was a reflection of a kind of 'Primal' sound or vibration, which was taking place in the spiritual universe. This inaudible sound was thought to be the basis of all matter & energy in the temporal universe, & in its fundamental form was known to the ancient Hindu people as Om. However, just as pure white light can be differentiated with a prism into the 7 colours of the rainbow, & as audible sound can be Fourier analysed into a series of tones of the Harmonic Series, so the primal scream was thought to have been differentiated into a series of harmonics, or Cosmic Tones, which were present in varying combinations throughout the universe - in fact, these tones, as the most powerful force in the universe, were the universe. In ancient Egypt these cosmic tones were declared as the Words of the Gods, the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece knew them as the Music of the Spheres, & the ancient Chinese described them as the Celestial Energies of Perfect Harmony. With this in mind, to Christians, the words from the Gospel of St John 'In the beginning was the Word, & the Word was with God, & the Word was God' could be interpreted literally in this manner to provoke thought as to the consequences of more sound upon the governance of the Universe; especially if one draws parallels with Hindu concepts: it is possible to equate the Hindu Om with the Word, for each are associated in scripture with the process of Creation, & each are associated with the 'Son' (Vishnu & Christ) in the respective Trinity.

So, if one chooses to believe i: that there is such a thing as Microcosm & Macrocosm, & ii: the concept of Om (or whatever one might wish to call it - the Word, or the Primal Vibration) as the maintainance of Creation, then it is not such a great leap of faith to consider the possibility that audible sound as we hear it in the temporal universe is the same reflection of the inaudible sound that governs the spiritual universe - we have here the concept of Microsound & Macrosound. Furthermore, it is possible to take this belief further, & assume that, since the microsound is a reflection of the macrosound (& vice versa), whatever happens in the microsound also affects the macrosound - ultimately extrapolated, this means that audible sound, & therefore music, affects the spiritual universe; since according to this belief, the spiritual universe affects the temporal one, audible sound, & therefore music, affects the physical world around us.


One of the earliest people to have implemented these ideas in their philosophy to the extreme were the ancient Chinese. To them, each piece of music was more than a mere entertainment, or even a worshipful act, it was an energy-formula which realised the sacred power of sound in its own unique way; each composition had its own effects on people, civilisation, & the world. It was this belief which influenced Chinese philosophers into directing more than an insignificant portion of their attention to the music of the nation - if the people were to be protected from the 'dangers' of the misuse of the power of music, & if they were to bask in its optimally beneficial use, then it had to be ensured that only the 'correct' music was allowed to be sounded. For them all music should convey eternal truths, & influence the peoples' character for the better; it is no accident therefore that the word for music (yüo) is the same pictogram as that for the word for serenity (lo). The ancient Chinese writings which are still extant make no bones about this power of music over the emotional wellbeing of man - such as in the Yo Ki ('Memorial of Music') we read thus:

'Under the effect of music, the 5 social duties are without admixture, the eyes & ears are clear, the blood & the vital energies are balanced, habits are reformed, customs are improved, & the empire is at complete peace.'

The philosophers were convinced that all 'course' & sensual music (in the terms of how they defined that) had an immoral effect on the person listening to it, & consequently kept an ear on music to ascertain its potential for spirituality or degradation. Confucius (551 - 479 BC) singled out several styles for moral condemnation: 'The music of Cheng is lewd & corrupting, the music of Sung is soft & makes one effeminate, the music of Wei is repetitious & annoying, & the music of Ch'i is harsh & makes one haughty' (Tame 1984: p 34). He also had positive things to say about music, thus: 'The noble-minded man's music is mild & delicate, keeps a uniform mood, enlivens & moves. Such a man does not harbour pain or mourn in his heart; violent & daring movements are foreign to him'.


After coming to the conclusion that audible sound was inextricably linked to celestial sound, & the ramifications that had for civilisation, the Chinese then set about attempting to align their music to the principles & proportions of cosmic order; thus aligning all consciousness & life to this celestial order. From this we can draw parallels between the Chinese concept of consciousness (when correctly aligned) embodying the celestial sound, & the Christian concept of Christ being the physical manifestation of the Word of God. We have the 'divine right of kings' idea here - the Chinese emperors were also seen as gods, & their word was the Word. We can see this by examining some of the language - as an example, the name given to Chinese music's foundation tone was 'huang chung' ('yellow bell'), but this phrase was also used to refer to both the ruler (symbolically) & also to divine will itself. The colour yellow was seen as the colour of sacred wisdom, the imperial colour, & the emperor was a priest - king.

In terms of the microsound, the huang chung was used as the standard pitch upon which the music of the nation was based (ie, much the same as our contemporary A=442 Hz standard). As far as the philosophers related it to the macrosound, the audible huang chung was the most perfect audible manifestation of the primal vibration possible; it was considered as a several octave transposition of the 'macrochung', & as such was an actual audible embodiment of the Word. In cosmology, the purpose of the Word was to act as mediator between Heaven & Earth, so therefore the celestial huang chung (& consequently the audible transposition of it) was the vehicle for the transference of divine will into the microcosm. So, given this the analogy of the huang chung as both divine & temporal ruler is complete - as the bell set the pitch of all music, so did the Emperor set the laws of State, & both were seen as the transference objects through which divine will passed.


We have thus far dealt with the ideas that all musical pitches were aligned & standardised according to the huang chung, but there are yet more philosophical implications involved. For, if one gives it careful consideration, if one believes that earthly music should be standardised according to the heavens, it is possible for one to extrapolate a belief that all in the microcosm should be standardised to conform with the macrocosm, all weights & measures in addition to all music. To the ancient Chinese, this indeed was the case, & since they were assigning the greatest significance to the huang chung, it made perfect sense, if not absolutely essential, to use it as the yardstick by which weights & measures were set.

The question might be asked, just how could one derive such a system from a musical tone ? A system of length measurement is easy - a vibrating string of a specific length produces a specific pitch, but what about weight (the concept of mass was yet to be discovered), or volume ? The answer was deceptively simple; only a pipe of the correct length & correct volume could produce the correct huang chung tone, so the length of this pipe became the standard unit of distance measurement, its capacity became the unit of volume, & the weight of the amount of rice it contained became the standard unit of weight. So closely connected were the standardisation of music & dimensions that the Imperial Office of Music was actually associated with the Imperial Office of Weights & Measures, & the original pipe which was the standard by which all dimensions were copied from was more often than not kept at the latter office.


In addition to the huang chung tone (which was known as 'kung' - cf the Indian 'Sa', or our 'tonic' ('doh')), the Chinese octave was also differentiated into 12 tones tuned more or less according to the circle of 5ths common to many musical systems around the world, & each of these 12 tones were associated with one of the 12 zodiacal regions of the sky. So, given a belief in astrology, ie, the influence of heavenly objects on earthly life, with particular prominence given to the influence afforded by the zodiacal constellations, it is not too unreasonable to add to this a further belief in a similar influence of a particular tone during a particular month; & likewise, given the division of the day into units of 12 hours, a different tone was believed to also be in prominence during each hour.

As well as the 'dodecality' of the zodiac, it must also be remembered that Chinese philosophy was also riddled with the duality of opposites - the 'yin' & the 'yang' forces which were respectively masculine & feminine, positive & negative etc. Bearing this in mind, it comes as no surprise to learn that of the 12 tones, 6 of them were believed to be yin in nature, which corresponded to the later 6 months of the year, & the other 6 were believed to be yang tones, being aligned to the first 6 months of the year. In accordance with the belief that earthly music must exist in tandem with the heavenly music, the musicians performed their music according to whatever tone, or 'lüi' was dominating at the time, especially ceremonial music.

This was necessary because of the idea that the perfect State could only be maintained by remaining in alignment with the Celestial Order, & as well as aligning music along these lines various other functions of state were also associated with a tone; to take the line of reasoning further, even the officials of the nation were seen as the embodiment of the Cosmic Tones, & were thus assigned their own audible tone. The key of the music of a given ceremony was also influenced by the tone of the officiating office. Thus the music of the state, & the actions of the state, became the embodiment of divine will, & by its alignment with the principles of the macrocosm, the music of the microcosm could retroactively influence by the act of sympathetic resonance the energies of heaven to embody themselves within the leaders of the nation (Rudhyar 1928). If any of this attunement with celestial order were to be lost or corrupted, then such a loss had, according to the philosophy, a corresponding effect of reducing the nation to a state of imperfection & impermanence. A significant deviation was believed to run the risk of catastrophic effect.


For four & a half thousand years the music of China & its civilisation were maintained in harmonious alignment. & then, with the rise to power of the Ch'ing Dynasty (AD 1644 - 1912) music fell into decline. Parallelling this decline in music was a deterioration of the ancient civilisation, finally culminating in 1912 with the revolution of Sun Yat - Sen & followed by the rather temporary rise of the Republic (& then the later, even more temporary new Empire) of Chiang Kai - Shek & his Kuomintang Party.

This decline in the Chinese traditional music began with the arrival of Catholic missionaries from the West, along with their music. Gradually the western secular music was introduced, & then western instruments, & eventually western musicians became professors at the Imperial Court. However, the blame for the decline in the traditional music cannot be directed entirely at the hands of the west; after all, 'foreign' music had infiltrated Chinese music before - in AD 581 there were as much as 7 foreign orchestras in permanent residence at the imperial court, one of which had been there since as early as AD 384 (Sachs 1943). The difference between the earlier occasions & the last one was that whilst previously the traditional music had actually absorbed the palatable aspects of the foreign sounds into itself, & rejected the indigestible ones, this time around it was more a case of the ancient philosophy weakening its hold over the nation, & the nation ultimately rejecting it entirely, until finally with the Revolution the entire civilisation collapsed.


We have looked in some small detail into one area of philosophical thought regarding music, but this is by no means all of what there is - up until comparatively recently the performance of North Indian music was governed by similar concepts - for example, certain ragas could only be performed at certain times of the day or even year. The ancient Indian religion, Vedism (the precursor to Hinduism) had its parallel to the Chinese Huang Chung with its concepts of 'ahata' & 'anahata'; the former representing the audible sound heard by ears, & the latter representing the inaudible Primal Sound, perhaps interestingly also being the name given to the heart 'chakra' - the most important of the 7 spiritual centres in Vedic belief. The Hindus/Vedists have an audible representation of the Sound too; the Om, as the Mandukya Upanishad describes thus: 'The syllable Om, which is the imperishable Brahman, is the Universe. Whatsoever has existed, whatsoever exists, whatsoever shall exist hereafter, is Om. & whatsoever transcends past, present, & future, that is also Om.'

Science also notes correlations with the laws of music & the laws of the Universe; first there is the 'mystery' of the Pythagorean Comma. This is the phenomenon whereby if one has a starting pitch, & raise it successively by an acoustic perfect 5th thus:

F - C - G - D - A - E - B - F# - C# - G# - D# - A#

when one tries to complete the cycle of 5ths to return to the initial pitch class of E# (F), one finds that one has slightly 'overshot' the mark; the difference being known as the Comma. It was this difference (which has led to the multitudinous tuning systems that Western musical theory has devised over the last 600 years) which was used by ancient philosophers to represent humanity's; fall from perfection - furthermore, the fact that the difference is an excess rather than a deficit, symbolically spiralling upwards, was used to represent renewal - the phoenix rising from the ashes, & the hope of resurrection & immortality in Heaven (Tame 1984: pp 248-250).

There are other scientific correlations to note; in his books 'Mysterium Cosmographicum' (1596) & 'Harmonices Mundi V' (1619), Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630) pointed out the harmonic nature of the Solar System - the proportions of the orbital positions of the planets (& the position of the Jovian asteroids) around the Sun correspond exactly with the proportions between pitches in the harmonic series (Godwin 1987). Furthermore, referring back to the Pythagorean Comma for a second, there is a relationship between the length of the Sidereal year (equinox to equinox) of 365.256 days & the length of the Lunar year (12 new moons) of 354.333 days; in fact the former exceeds the latter by a factor of 1.03082, which, given the coincidences, is shatteringly close to the figure of 1.01364, which is the factor of overlap of the Pythagorean Comma. The coincidence extends still further; if we took a period of time which corresponds to the true Comma to the Sidereal year, we find a year lasting 360.27390 days - with 360 days being the length of the year as measured by the Pharisees of Israel.

So, where do these ideas of sound & music being fundamental to the governance of the Universe leave those of us who are responsible for the creation & production of sound & music in the closing years of the twentieth century ? I have been referring at length to David Tame's book 'The Secret Power of Music' for a very good reason. It is a highly comprehensive work, containing a lot of useful information. However, careful reading of it shows up to me what are the dangers of taking any philosophical dogma too literally (indeed, the book could be described as a 'microcosm' of musical philosophy), for interspersed amongst the facts & informations it is possible to detect a not-so-hidden agenda; namely, to denigrate & condemn as evil the majority of music to have been made since the Emancipation Of Dissonance of all flavours - 'art' music, jazz, & pop, by referring to certain experiments performed on plants (Tame 1984: pp 141-145) whilst carefully avoiding quoting precise references for the research, & also many other sniping condemnations of specific composers & performers, such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, & Steve Reich, describing them with terms such as 'antimusic' & 'perverted', & at the same time promoting the music of his personal 'favourites', such as Ralph Vaughan - Williams, Gustav Holst, Ludwig van Beethoven, & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At the end of the book, he then (actually quite subtly) introduces what is obviously his own religious affiliation, the Summit Lighthouse aka The Church Universal & Triumphant as the practitioners of the New Morally Correct Music.

Subsequent to my original writing of this article as an essay in 1996 I came across a recording of rituals performed by the Summit Lighthouse in their meetings, and turned it into a musical work of my own:

As can be heard, some of their opinions on people, society, and lifestyles are considerably more ugly even than their opinions on music.

It is my own opinion that there is a real & scientific connection between the artistic laws that make beautiful music & the physical laws that make a beautiful Universe; however, just as philosophy is humanity's search for those physical laws at the Ultimate Level, so musical philosophy of this nature is the search for the aesthetic correspondence with them. However, I find that philosophy, like physics, is never complete; & any attempt to impose such completeness is, at best aesthetically bankrupt, & at worse aesthetic Fascism.


The Secret Power of Music, David Tame, Thorsons Publishing (1984)
Nada Brahma, The World is Sound, Joachim-Ernst Berendt, Insel Verlag (1983)
Music, Mysticism, & Magic, Joscelyn Godwin, Routledge & Kegan Paul (1986)
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilisations, ed Arthur Cotterell,
Penguin (1980)
Grove's Dictionary of Music & Musicians
The Rebirth of Hindu Music, Dane Rudhyar (1928)
The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, Curt Sachs (1943)
The Magic of Tone & the Art of Music, Dane Rudhyar, Boulder (1982)
Through Music to the Self, Peter Michel Hamel, Compton Press (1978)
Harmonies of Heaven & Earth, Joscelyn Godwin, Thames & Hudson (1987)


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